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Classic Art: J.C. Leyendecker

J.C. Leyendecker

J.C. Leyendecker

“I began working for The Saturday Evening Post in 1916,” wrote Norman Rockwell, “and Leyendecker was my God.”

There are parallels between the two great illustrators, who later became friends. Both had very long careers with the Post: 45 years for Joseph Christian Leyendecker (from 1898 to 1943) and 47 years for Rockwell (from 1916 to 1963). Each artist created more than 300 Post covers.

“Hurdy-Gurdy Man”

Hurdy-Gurdy Man from May 25, 1912


"Hurdy-Gurdy Man"
from May 25, 1912

Street or barrel organs were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although this century-old cover may be charming to us, the organs were not popular with everyone. According to Wikipedia, the organ grinders were often considered a nuisance and the cranking made some cranky. Charles Dickens complained that he couldn’t get a half hour’s writing in before one of those blasted organs disturbed him.

“To ask outright for money is a crime,” later echoed George Orwell, “yet it is perfectly legal to annoy ones’ fellow citizens by pretending to entertain them.” Be that as it may, the delightful little girls here are having a jolly time.

“Littlest Soldier”

Littlest Soldier from September 30, 1916


"Littlest Soldier"
from September 30, 1916

Leyendecker did a dozen Post covers revolving around World War I, from the tragic to the fairly light, as in “The Littlest Soldier” from 1916. Although it really isn’t light fare, considering that the children are undoubtedly acting out a scene they have witnessed among grown-ups.

Like the cover above, Leyendecker designed this to be noticed on newsstands to carry “further because a good cover has a distinct silhouette,” he noted in a 1932 Post story. “It should, too, tell its story in pantomime. A cover that carries an explanatory legend defeats itself.”

“Knight in Shining Armor”

Knight in Shining Armor from July 17, 1926


"Knight in Shining Armor"
from July 17, 1926

This is the kind of opulent illustration many think of when they hear the name Leyendecker. Milady has found her knight in shining armor on his lavishly bedecked steed. Leyendecker was born in 1874 and grew up in Montabaur, Germany, a tiny town that goes back to the year 959. A medieval town wall, Crusader influence, and ancient buildings surely fueled the artist’s fascination with the middle ages, in particular coats of arms and armor. We’re not sure what the coat of arms carried by our knight on this 1926 cover symbolizes, but the golden banner at the bottom says “lune de miel,” a French phrase that means honeymoon.

“Kuppenheimer Ad”

Kuppenheimer Ad from March 23, 1929


"Kuppenheimer Ad"
from March 23, 1929

Leyendecker illustrated ads for Kuppenheimer men’s clothing, Arrow Shirts and others. Whether in ads or on Post covers, Leyendecker’s women and men tended to be beautifully dressed. The young lady in this 1929 ad was Phyllis Frederic. According to the book J.C. Leyendecker by Laurence S. Cutler and Judy Goffman Cutler, Phyllis “passed Joe’s (J.C.’s) studio almost daily on her way to meet her father at (Norman) Rockwell’s studio.” Her dad, William Frederic, better known as “Pops,” is familiar to you if you’re a Rockwell follower, as he posed for that artist for several Post covers (see below).” (The name is spelled “Frederic” in the Cutler book; other sources spell it “Fredericks”)

“Doctor and the Doll” by Norman Rockwell

Doctor and the Doll from March 9, 1929 by Norman Rockwell


"Doctor and the Doll"
from March 9, 1929
by Norman Rockwell

“The Doctor and the Doll” from 1929 was the most beloved of the many covers “Pops” Frederic posed for. Many artists used the same models. Not only were Mr. Frederic and his daughter, Phyllis, hired by Leyendecker in 1922, but the deal included another family member—Phyllis’ dog, Spot! Spot was a popular model with both Leyendecker and Rockwell.

“George Washington on Horseback”

George Washington on Horseback from July 2, 1927


"George Washington on Horseback"
from July 2, 1927

The first president was a popular theme with illustrators, especially for the Fourth of July, as in this 1927 cover. Leyendecker chose a heroic pose for Washington, who was a cover subject 10 times, 5 times by Leyendecker. Although we doubt the general had been blessed with such an elegant saddle, we agree with the artist—he should have been. Leyendecker portraits on Post covers included Kaiser Wilhelm II, and a delightful rendering of William Howard Taft (see presidential covers).

“Living Mannequin”

Living Mannequin from March 5, 1932


"Living Mannequin"
from March 5, 1932

If you look up Leyendecker in a pricey, high-end art book, much of what you will see are his more elegant, lavish illustrations, such as the “Knight in Shining Armor” above. Often overlooked or forgotten are his comic renderings.

The bottom line is that Leyendecker had more diversity of illustrative work than almost any artist. Some are humorous or cute, like our 1932 “model” here. His 300 Post covers, depict more than four decades of the heartrending (a devastated WWI mother receiving “the dreaded telegram”), the practical (a current politician), the fun, and of course, the elegant.


Next: “The Other Leyendecker”: Joe’s talented but less-successful brother, Frank X. Leyendecker.

Reprints of The Saturday Evening Post covers are available at art.com.

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  • They’re all great, including ‘Littlest Soldier’. What happened to the top of the head of the male doll the girl is holding? I guess only Leyendecker knows, right?

    ‘Knight in Shining Armor’ and ‘George Washington on Horseback’ are both great examples of the ‘spectacularness’ that typified many of his covers. ‘Living Mannequin’ was definitely his too, but was more toned-down in a Rockwell-ish way. He was extremely diverse as all his POST covers show, and of course his ads.

  • Charles Neumann

    Leyendecker was indeed a great cover artist, but I much prefer Rockwell, Falter and other Posts artists. But, you can’t deny the power of his work.